Google tries jump-starting 3D Web with O3D

An open-source browser plug-in gives games and other Web applications the ability to take advantage of a computer's graphics chip.

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

Updated at 11:20 a.m. with links to the project.

Google on Tuesday released software called O3D to bring accelerated 3D graphics to browsers, a significant effort but not the only one to try to endow Web applications with some of the computing muscle that PC programs can use.

Google's O3D lets browsers show accelerated 3D graphics such as this island scene.
Google's O3D lets browsers show accelerated 3D graphics such as this island scene. Google

O3D is a browser plug-in for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome that works on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, but Google hopes that eventually, the technology will be built directly into browsers. It provides an interface that lets developers' Web-based JavaScript programs tap directly into a computer's graphics chip, which could mean better games and other applications.

Google touted the technology in a blog post. It includes a video demonstration, complete with a soothing voice-over and a spacey ambient-music soundtrack, for those who don't want to install the plug-in.

Google isn't the only one to aspire to 3D Web. In the 1990s, a technology called Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) bubbled up but never caught on. Today's Internet is a different beast, not least because major powers such as Google, Yahoo, and even Microsoft are advancing the frontiers of what can be done with a Web-based application.

"The time is right for 3D content to move onto the Web," said Henry Bridge, associate product manager.

Mozilla wants 3D, too
He's right, at least in the eyes of his peers. Firefox backer Mozilla and the Khronos Group, which oversees the widely used OpenGL 3D interface standard, announced their own effort to build a 3D Web interface.

The two efforts, while tackling the same basic idea, use different approach.

"OpenGL tends to be a lot of code to write, even for something simple, but OpenGL gives you a lot of control," said Engineering Director Matt Papakipos, who previously ran the architecture group at graphics chip power Nvidia. "Ours is at a higher level. It takes fewer function calls, so it's easier to get stuff on the screen."

Google believes that it's possible that multiple 3D interfaces will be supported in browsers of the future. "Ultimately, there's going to be at least two," Papakipos said, pointing out that 2D graphics in the browser has two technologies at present, SVG and Canvas.

Google has been working on the open-source plug-in software for two years, Bridge said. The plug-in is intended less for regular users of the Web and more for programmers trying to explore what can be done with 3D on the Web.

Appealing to gamers
Although Google has applications such as Google Earth that would benefit from 3D acceleration, the company knows well that games are the real draw.

"If you look at how we use 3D hardware, 20 years ago, it was CAD (computer-aided design). Today, it's for playing games," Papakipos said.

There are plenty of casual gamers who might be interested in Web games that today might run with Adobe Systems' Flash technology. But hard-core gamers are a pickier set, eager for the latest graphics card with the best performance. So how well does O3D perform?

"We can push it to the wall. There's not really any difference between native performance and our performance," Papakipos said. However, he added, that's just for the graphics component of the game. Ordinary computing operations that use JavaScript are much slower than native software running on a computer, he said.